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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More from the Storytellers

When I was in Alabama last September touring the facility where I sit, Chris Waddle from the University of Alabama and The Teaching Newspaper was asking about my writing. I went through the abridged version of the bio and then mentioned KnowledgeWorks. I said to him: "They call us storytellers" and then I went on to explain our role.

He stopped me and in that wonderful smooth southern voice said, "Now that makes a good name for our conference." And so it has, especially when Chris says it: "They call us storytellers." We're nearly at the half-way point and the storytelling has been terrific.

Rick Bragg is speaking now and Gay Talese, for whom I just fetched coffee—a task only usually performed for my dad or my husband—is seated in the audience. He's staying with us through lunch, featuring Kathryn Tucker Windham, an author and storyteller in the oral tradition.

There is no substitute for being there, says Talese. You have to be in contact personally with the people about whom you're writing.

For example, he was wondering aloud why the Walter Reed story wasn't done sooner. It will probably win its reporters a Pulitzer Prize and rightly so. But what took so long?

The journalism establishment has lost touch with what's important. Thousands of Washington Press Corps journalists gather socially and spend their days as the unelected cadre providing commentary and reportage on the federal government. "They didn't know about a hospital a few blocks away called Walter Reed."

"If I could fulfill a fantasy I would break of the Washington Press Corps." In its place, he would send those reporters into the 50 states to find out what's really going on in this country. "We'd get a better sense of the nation and learn people's attitudes and thoughts about war, poverty, dreams and possibilities."

When asked what he reads for inspiration, he mentioned the usual things such as The New Yorker and short stories, but he also mentioned that he reads a lot of fiction.

I'm all over the place and rushing through my notes, but time is short and I'm trying to post regularly. Many people have asked about reporting "The Kingdom and the Power." He told, rather eloquently, of sitting in the NYT managing editor's office to interview him for the book. He looked at the photos of other MEs lining the walls and realized this story was about them, too. "I had to make the people in those photos come alive."

In my notebook I have scratched down, "Just wanted to be there." I can't remember if that was in reference to working at The New York Times or in reference to reporting. What it means to me is that there is no substitute for what you can obtain by hanging around and interviewing someone in person.

I'm planning to duck in to hear Rick Bragg in a bit (there's a lot of laughter coming from the room). I've already asked him for an interview and he's graciously agreed. How often do you get to interview a national writer in person for a $150 story that goes to 9,500 people? I'm here and I'm going with it.

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